Please welcome Jeff Jablansky, our newest guest writer and resident messhugeneh
Attempting to carve into the curves of the Ramon Crater with a machine as dull as a Hyundai Getz is like trying to slice sashimi with a plastic knife. Or performing surgery with knitting needles.
If you had walked around the right side of the Getz, you would have seen the word “FUN” cut out of a vinyl sticker and emblazoned above the right-side turn-signal repeater. If you had spent any appreciable amount of time behind the wheel, you would know that there was little truth in advertising.
I ended up behind the wheel of Hyundai’s lowliest hatchback as the result of a three a.m. decision to drive from Israel’s desert metropolis of Tel Aviv, where I lived, to the desert oasis of Eilat, to get a cup of espresso — a round-trip journey of 500 miles. A new branch of the popular Aroma Espresso Bar chain had just opened at the country’s southern border, overlooking Egypt. As soon as I heard the news, I was already out the door.
It’s not that the beaux-arts, gentrified city of Tel Aviv isn’t bursting with cafes and their associated, inherited socialites and latte-sipping proletariat. On the contrary. But when the opportunity strikes for the enthusiast, rational argument gives way to raw instinct. Six hours later, I found myself at Avis signing the papers for a 24-hour rental of a dusty, late-model Hyundai Getz with 45,000 miles on the odometer.
Five hundred miles seemed like a long drive to find the same cup of coffee as offered four blocks down the street. A true enthusiast, however, would realize the route was a chance to blast through the relatively trafficless desert on some of the best roads east of Europe. Historically, the port of Eilat was linked with the rest of the country via the Arava Road, which enabled the British to move imported wares with relative ease. As the country’s infrastructure developed, a second dual carriageway, Route 40, was designed to weave through the Ramon Crater as a parallel path to the south.
Route 40 is a road constructed of driving fantasies. It sweeps through the desert and fits to its contours as if plotted by ibex. Double-yellow lines are rare; high-speed passing maneuvers of all levels of bravery are, therefore, encouraged. Distraction-free driving, with the exception of good company and background noise, is the key.
With that in mind, the Getz was not the ideal road companion. Although lightweight, it was powered by an engine that must possess, on a good day, 100 horsepower, with an engine note as coarse as the surrounding sands. The suspension was sloppy, our tester suffered from botched alignment, and the steering suffered from being too wooden and disconnected. At speed, a strange clicking noise seemed to emanate from underneath the car. In some countries, the Getz is known as the Click. Coincidence?
The interior exemplified “no-frills” in an era in which Hyundai leads most of its competition in feature content. No power anything, no anti-lock brakes, no defrosters. Avis cheered up the interior by installing a radio, as opposed to the standard sound system: the pleasure of lowering the windows and listening to the whining of an overrevved engine.
The rental agent gave us the Getz on the lot with a blue interior accent color, which worked to spice up the dour, black interior. It also drew attention to the execrable fit and finish, and hard plastics that dotted the interior. The seats, which were almost definitely lawn chairs covered in the thinnest velour available, offered the impression of comfort and the reality of late-onset thrombosis.
For all the faults of a cheaply built, underpowered, questionably maintained hatchback, there is still an argument in driving a slow car on potentially fast roads: the chance to wring out every available horsepower.
The road from Tel Aviv begins as a supermodern, six-lane highway, but transitions into a four-lane highway after about 100 miles. The road split near the Be’er Sheva junction, offering a continued four-lane or a more challenging two-lane, and I naturally opted for the two-lane. With the destination just 150 miles away — in relative terms, nearly half the country’s entire north-south span — the road started to open up.
I overtook everyone. I did the equivalent of 85 mph (135 km/h) and watched the tachometer’s needle wail into the 3000 range, just to keep up. I played cat-and-mouse with a late-‘90s Pontiac Grand Prix (unlike other Middle Eastern countries, Israel’s American cars are similar to ours) for almost 50 miles before he pulled over to let me go. Not that I could actually go much faster on the Getz’s small, thin tires.
Then, almost out of nowhere, the road looked as if it’s about to drop off a cliff. The highway suddenly dips dramatically to follow the curves of the Ramon Crater, which rivals the Grand Canyon in size and the Stelvio Pass in sinuous surfaces. The Google Earth view of the road, showing its adherence to nature’s intended path, makes the mind reel. For a moment, I wondered if there was automotive karma. Then the Getz started clicking again.
The path is worth descending slowly, before moving on to the next segment of road, when Highway 40 reaches a junction with Highway 12. I took the fork eastward with some hesitation, but was rewarded in spades. Just before reaching Eilat, with the faded, salty air of the Red Sea in the distance, Route 12 wound its way down another set of cliffs.
In the end, reaching Eilat was the most anticlimactic part of the entire trip. I should have known the cappuccino wasn’t going to be anything special. and it only took about ten minutes to realize I had driven a long way from home to find myself with little to do in Eilat.
Five hours after leaving the city, though, the mission was fulfilled. Foam dripping off my lips, I stared at the Getz, which had managed to inject just the right amount of excitement into the trip, and smiled.
Then I realized I had forgotten about the all-uphill return trip. I gulped, accompanied by the Getz’s continued, incessant clicking.
Sometimes, the advertised fun is in the journey, not how you get there.